They're coming for your mom, they're coming for your dad, they're coming for your elderly aunt or nice neighbor.
This last weekend saw the premiere of the documentary film Last Will and Embezzlement, a chilling account of how the senior population in this country is being vampirized.
It's a simple story on the surface: Scam artist meets senior, scam artist befriends senior, scam artist takes senior for all he or she is worth. This particular horror tale only portends to get darker and darker.
The surface simplicity has complex roots such as reverse-mortgage loans, Alzheimer's and other psychological instabilities, and a legal and financial system ill-equipped to offer an antidote to the encroaching leeches.
Historically, leeches were applied to the ill and infirm as a sort of restorative, but they didn't really work. There is an eerie parallel here.
In one story, an elderly woman had been befriended by a new neighbor who eventually insinuated herself into all her financial affairs and was systematically siphoning away her money. When told that she was being taken advantage of, the woman declined to prosecute, saying, "She's my friend."
The "healing" leech is lethal. Being scammed it seemed, was better than the alternative -- loneliness.
Mickey Rooney, a beloved film star for most of the 20th century, from National Velvet to Breakfast at Tiffany's -- has a similarly complex story, in that the perpetrator of financial fraud on his earnings and livelihood was a relative -- so Rooney and his wife were trapped into a life of virtual poverty rather than confront an intricate web of pain, betrayal and exploitation.
And that's just the tales of the cognizant.
Another elderly couple was coerced into a reverse-mortgage loan, which sucked them dry of their last asset, their home, when they had been in a fairly stable financial position. But Alzheimer's diminished the wife's comprehension and by the time her daughter stepped in to try to salvage the situation, it was almost too late.
"Reverse-mortgage loans are complex financial instruments that even a layperson can't understand, much less a compromised elderly couple," she said. Even now the exhaustion from lengthy legal machinations has made keeping up the fight a tenuous proposition at best.
In yet another instance, this time regarding Last Will's producer, Pamela S. K. Glasner's own father, and one impetus for the film, involved a man walking into the senior center and getting her father's signature on a power of attorney. Sounds like a simple tale of reversal and fraud but in this arena, nothing is simple.
Toward the end of the film, Glasner relates a chilling sentence that summarizes the insidiousness of the situation, said to her by the scam artist who took her father:
"...there's nothing you can do to stop me because I have more money than you, and I can keep you tied up in the courts forever."
While the film would benefit from another round of disciplined editing -- there is apparently a punchy 32-minute version for schools and other institutions -- it should be required viewing regardless. We are an aging population (the statistics are staggering) within an unstable economy, and as one interviewee states in the film, law enforcement have little or no training in this kind of crime, so it's very hard to prosecute.
Heightened awareness is only the first step, but a mandatory one, toward developing a system of financial protection for this fragile population.
Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's StyleGoesStrong.com
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